c. 1030 | China

Acquired Tastes

A regional survey of Chinese delicacies.

Spring isles grow with shoots of reeds,
spring shores fly with willow flowers.

At such times “river hog” is prized
beyond the common run of fish.

Its form may make one marvel,
there is also no worse poison.

Its raging belly is like a great hog,
its furious eyes like a southeastern frog.

When fried in the kitchen, if things go amiss,
it will enter the throat like the sword Mo-ya.

Why give sustenance to tooth and palate
with something that wrecks the body like this?

If one dare question the Southerners thus,
they band to defend it and boast its merit.

They all say it’s tasty beyond any measure,
none think of how many folk die from the pleasure.

And since to my views they will make no concession,
I helplessly sigh and give no more expression.

When Han Yu came to Chaoyang at last,
at a dinner of snakes he was left aghast.

When Liuzhou was Liu Zongyuan’s abode,
he learned to grow fond of the taste of toad.

Although both creatures may be abhorrent,
one’s life is not risked by an accident.

Such flavor may truly be like nothing else,
but within is mayhem that’s limitless.

“Great beauty has some evil as pair”—
I really think that saying is fair.

©1996 by Stephen Owen and The Council for Cultural Planning and Development of the Executive Yuan of the Republic of China. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Mei Yaochen

“At a Party.” Mei passed the imperial examination at the age of forty-nine, serving in various provinces and in the capital. Along with Ouyang Xiu, he helped lead a poetry movement that advocated neo-Confucian critiques of comtemporary life while revitalizing the “old style” of unadorned verse. Mei once observed, “Today as in ancient times/it’s hard to write a simple poem.”